It is spring and nature is awakening. Every year, I marvel at this floral miracle, at the explosion of colours, sounds, perfumes. My mind associates with it ideas like youth, optimism, rebirth, courage… Courage? Courage to experiment, perhaps? Definitely. Let’s try this approach with two composers, one form the 19th century and one from today. One from Vienna and one from London. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and Thomas Adès (born 1971). 200 years separate the two composers; both have written a beautiful piano quintet. These two pieces are related, not only by the fact that Adès has recorded both on an album, but most of all by their daring juggling with notes, colours and forms.
While Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A “Trout” Op. 114, D. 667 is written in five movements, Adès’ Piano Quintet has only one movement albeit divided in three sections. While both quintets respect the traditional sonata form, Adès adds new elements that characterize his piece as a 20th century composition. “The themes of the Quintet are recognizably tonal, and are closely related to one another in their melodic contours. […] These simple building-blocks are the starting-points for rich and intricate processes of transformation. The long exposition is full of subtle metrical juxtapositions, with the piano and string quartet often playing in different time-signatures simultaneously”, it says in a note by Faber Music, the publisher of the score.
Adès uses harsh contrasts, they remind me of patches of the ice in a field where the first flowers are popping up, expressed through the melodic phrasing. Grey-white elements contrasting with floral ones in warm colours. The ample use of pizzicato* (strings) and staccato* notes for the piano – water droplets! Melting ice? Bubbling water fountains? A trout jumping out of the water? You choose!
A trout in multiple variations
Schubert’s piece was no less special if we consider the musical conventions at the beginning of the 19th century. He wrote his quintet in 1819 for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass. The inclusion of a double bass is unusual. Schubert thus freed the cello of its traditional bass part and assigns a melodic tenor function to it. Furthermore the fact that the piece has a specific theme – the “Trout” theme from his famous song “Die Forelle” Op. 32 D. 550 – distinguished it from other chamber music works of that time. While unexpected harmonies are a hallmark of Schubert’s chamber music, they were perceived as quite eccentric at his time.
Some of Schubert’s variations of the original song have almost nothing in common with the basic melody of the song while others come very close to the actual song, e.g. in the fourth movement. Schubert’s joyful “Trout” theme alludes to the swift movements of the fish to escape capture. It also makes me think of a spring dance to greet the first tips of green, the warming sunrise, it exudes relief that the harshest time of the year is over and that a more benevolent future lies ahead. It is way more lyrical than Adès’ piece, but Adès piece is intellectually more subtle.
Experimental music? Obviously. Beautiful music? Oh yes! But listen for yourself, first to Adès’ piece, recorded by the Arditti Quartet and Adès himself, than to Schubert’s quintet, recorded by the Ensemble Villa Musica and Leonard Hokanson for instance. Spring, definitely!
© Charles Thibo
P. S. Wianne Kampen, reader of a post on Schubert’s song “Die Forelle”, drew my attention to an interesting lecture on Schubert’s quintet. Thank you!